Arguably the best thing about being Jewish is having a Jewish grandmother, so it makes me very sad that my kids are never going to know my mother, who died when our eldest was 6 weeks old, or my wife’s mother, who passed before we got married.
We want to give our young kids a sense of who their grandmothers were, but we also don’t want to burden them with our sadness or freak them out about death (and have them worry we are about to die).
Trying to strike the proper balance, here’s what we do:
1. Name our kids after our mothers.
I believe in the power of language and especially of names (one of my favorite lines from literature is John Proctor uttering at the end of “The Crucible”—“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”). So when my mother was in the hospital dying from cancer and my wife was about to give birth to our first child, I asked my mom, Beth, if it was OK if I named the baby Benjamin for her, technically violating the Ashkenazi tradition to name children for deceased relatives. She seemed pleased at the request and gave me her blessing.
And to this day, my son feels connected to my mother because of his name. I remind him a few times a year who he’s named after and how she willed herself to stay alive to meet him for those precious six weeks and how much she would have loved him today if she were here.
Likewise, our second son is named Manny for my wife’s late mother, Myra. And we gave our daughter Beth as a middle name.
2. Celebrate their birthdays.
We started a tradition where, on our mother’s respective birthdays, we eat their favorite foods and talk about our moms with the kids.
“So Grandma Beth really loved pizza?” they ask me.
“Yes,” I say.
“Is Grandma Beth up with God in the clouds?” they ask.
“Maybe,” I say.
“Is she eating pizza with God?”
They start singing happy birthday for my mom and I get choked up. But I like that my kids are thinking about my mother and that they also see how much she meant to me.
3. Make their recipes.
My mother didn’t cook, but my wife’s mother was a master in the kitchen, and we make some of these recipes for the kids and brand them like GM brands cars. There’s Grandma Myra’s stuffed shells and Grandma Myra’s chicken marsala and hopefully one day we’ll even try out Grandma Myra’s famous sweet and sour tongue.
4. Read their written words to our kids.
I’m lucky in that my mother wrote children’s stories and some of them were published in Highlights for Children. So before the kids go to bed, I’ll occasionally bring out an old Highlights and read them my mom’s “Shhh Monster” or “Elaine is Sad” or “I wish I Could Paint.” It gives the kids a chance to hear my mother’s voice.
When they’re older, I’ll show them my mother’s adult stories and the letters she wrote to me in college and her poems and some of the whimsical birthday cards she sent to my father when they were just married.
5. Carry on their neuroses.
When a friend offered to give the kids a ride on a speedboat, I told them no and said Grandma Beth would never let them do it. I plan on invoking my mother in the future when they want to play football, drive a motorcycle, or spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
These are obviously meager substitutes for our kids actually knowing our mothers. But it’s all we got.